One of the questions I've most heard being asked about An American Crimeby those who haven't seen it is: Why would anyone want to make a movie about the brutal torture and murder of a 16-year-old girl? The answer, at least as director Tommy O'Haver gave at the world premiere of the film at Sundance, was two-fold. First, that the case happened when he was a teenager living in Indiana, and the murder of Sylvia Likens has haunted him his entire life; and second, that he wanted to explore and try to understand how such a horrific series of events happened. The basic facts of the tragic death of Sylvia Likens are well-known; numerous books and case studies have been written about the case. Sylvia (Ellen Page) and her younger sister Jenny, who had polio, were left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener) by their father Lester, a carnival worker, so that he and his wife could go work the circuit. Lester Likens had only met Gertrude one time before he agreed to leave his daughters in her care for $20 a week.
The girls were only supposed to be there a few weeks, but their parents extended their circuit and then stopped sending the money they had promised to pay for the girls' care. Before they got around to picking their girls up, it was too late for Sylvia -- she had been brutally beaten, burned, starved and tortured to death in the basement of the Baniszewski home. That alone was bad enough to rivet a nation in 1965, but what made the case even more complexing was that much of the torture of Sylvia Likens was committed by Gertrude's five older children, along with neighbor children -- kids who had known Sylvia, however briefly, from school and church. How could such a horrible crime take place, with children involved? Other adults had heard that Sylvia was being abused -- the next-door neighbors heard her screams as she was burned and beaten -- and yet no one intervened to help her.